The gift of Interruption

"The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one's 'own,' or 'real' life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one's real life -- the life God is sending one day by day." - C.S. Lewis


I can’t recall what song was playing, but I remember singing along with the radio when I saw her body being flung like a rag doll into the air bag. My sing-a-long was interrupted by the sound of glass shattering, followed by my own gasp.

Our light turned green and we coasted around the accident to the side of the street, where my first instinct was—uncharacteristically, I should say—to jump out of the car. I wasn’t the only one. A small group of people quickly flooded the four-way intersection. All around me cars were left running in park with the doors thrown open.

I ran to see if the lady who had been hit was okay. Before I reached the car, someone yelled, “Call the police!” and my fingers began dialing 911. I answered a dozen questions, quick to note the sketchy characters stumbling out of the other car, a truck, which was parked across the street. No visible injuries to that party; they were too busy removing what looked like beer cans from the inside of their vehicle, tossing them into the bed of their truck.

The victim, an elderly woman named Dolores, appeared to be okay, and a few of us remained in the street for a minute hovering around her damaged car. One lady wearing teal scrubs asked Dolores a few questions. “She’ll be fine!” she said to me before returning to her vehicle.

Another young woman gave me her phone number, insisting she caught the whole accident on her dash cam. “I can’t stay, but you can give the police my phone number!” she said as she ran off.

I stuck my head in the car and asked Dolores if she was okay. Her hands were shaking. She didn’t look fine to me. The group of helpers scattered as quickly as they appeared and in a matter of minutes I was the only one left standing in the middle of the intersection, next to a puddle of glass, trying to comfort someone else’s grandma.

“Are the police coming?” she asked, her voice just as shaky as her hands.

“Yep, I called them myself,” I said with a smile. “They’re on their way, and I’ll stay with you until they get here, okay?”

She told me she didn’t want to be a bother, and asked if I was sure. I told her she wasn’t a bother, and that I was. I took her cell phone and offered to call a family member. She asked me to call her daughter Tara. I left a voicemail.

Traffic started building up around us, and a man finally got out of his car and shouted, “Hey! Can she get out of the car?”

Her door was jammed, and although I have no medical training or knowledge whatsoever, I’ve seen enough episodes of Grey’s Anatomy to know that regular citizens are not supposed to move the injured after an accident like this.

“I don’t think we should move her!” I yelled back.

Dolores had mentioned having a lot of pain in her legs, and I didn’t want to risk doing further damage to possible injuries. My husband Brett, who had been keeping an eye on the guilty truck, ran over from across the street to assess the situation.

“We need to get her car out of the middle of the intersection,” the man told Brett.

We asked Dolores if she could steer, and she nodded. Brett suggested I get in the car with her, so I climbed in while they pushed us to the side of the road.

“That’s it,” I directed, “A little more to the right …”

Once we settled next to the curb, Dolores asked for her glasses.

“Where are they?” I asked.

“I was wearing them when I got hit … I think … I think they were hit off my face. I don’t know where they are,” she stammered.

A minute later I found them tucked underneath my seat. I held them up in victory.

“Oh thank you, dear,” she said, putting the frames back on her face, looking at me clearly for probably the first time.

She started asking questions: where I live, what I saw, where I was going that night. I told her we were on our way to dinner. I did not tell her my mother-in-law was home with our kids, or that she had been there all day and was doing us a favor by staying late. I did not tell her we were starting Whole30 in the morning and that I had been dreaming of my last meal (chicken tacos) for the past three hours.

Over and over again she thanked me for staying with her, telling me I was kind. Over and over again I reassured her I had nowhere important to be. It was the truth.

The fire trucks arrived thirty minutes later, and a police officer twenty minutes after that. When I watched the firefighters pull Delores from the car onto a stretcher and she shrieked in pain, I was thankful we hadn’t attempted to move her ourselves.

It wasn’t until a week later when I spoke to her daughter that I’d learn she had fractured her pelvis.

I also learned she was 88.

-----

I open Voxer and find a new voicemail from a friend, the fourth one this week. She is crying, confiding in me that her son has been biting other kids. She tells me how hard and exhausting it is, how she’s read 100 articles about what to do. She describes all the methods they’ve tried, the discipline strategies they’re implementing. She is worried this is all people see when they look at her son: a biter. She tells me about all of the other wonderful qualities her son possesses—his friendly and outgoing personality, his adaptability and spunk. I hear a mixture of guilt and sadness and frustration in her voice. I feel helpless. I want to reach through the phone and hug her.

A tear rolls down my face while I listen.

And then she says, “I’m sorry I keep calling you and crying. I don’t mean to burden you with this.”

-----

I sent Dolores a get well card a week after the car accident. A few days later, we spoke by phone. And a week after that, a card turned up in my mailbox.

Dear Ashlee and Brett,

It is seldom I am at a loss for words, but at this time, I am. My everlasting gratitude for the attention and care you showed me at the scene of my auto accident. What a beautiful world this would be if there were more of you.

In sincere appreciation,
Dolores

A $100 gift card was tucked inside to a restaurant Brett and I had been wanting to try. I felt guilty accepting something so extravagant for such a small deed. We were an hour late to dinner, who cares?

But to her, I realized, that hour was everything.

-----

I’m sitting at the head of a long white table, jotting down one more note in my journal. The air conditioner is blasting cold air on my shoulders, and the little hairs on my arms prick up as 20 women wander in, chatting and giggling, to take their seats. I’m leading them in a 7-week bible study on the topic of friendship.

Today we’re talking about showing up and the willingness to be interrupted.

Prior to this study, I’d never really noticed that quality in Jesus before. I mean, I’ve read the bible; I know the miracles. But I never paid much attention to the fact that almost every miracle Jesus performed was completed on the way to somewhere else. His whole life on earth was, essentially, a series of interruptions.

For example, one day while he was sitting with his disciples, a man burst through the doors begging Jesus to raise his daughter from the dead. On the way to that house, a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years reached out and touched his cloak. She was healed, as was the man’s daughter, and when Jesus went on from there, he encountered two blind men and a demon-possessed mute. He healed all three.

Four miracles back to back, each one an interruption.

Right before this happened, scripture says Jesus had been “reclining” at the table. That’s my favorite part. How many times have we mothers sat down to recline for a minute when someone suddenly needs a snack, a puzzle, more batteries for their toy, a new diaper?

Jesus feels us, I joke.

We spend the rest of the morning talking about interruptions as it pertains to friendship. One woman, Sherri, tells us about a friend of hers who always says, “It’s never a good time. So just call me anyway!”

It’s never a good time.
Call me anyway.

I love that.

I think about how rarely I call people on the phone. I text, I vox, I e-mail. All communication from me is sent in a leisurely, get-back-to-me-when-it’s-convenient-for-you fashion. And to be honest, that’s how I prefer to receive communication back. I don’t want you to interrupt my day. And I don’t want to interrupt yours.

It’s 2017. This is what people do.

We get in car accidents and feel terrible for interrupting a couple on their way to dinner. We cry on the phone and immediately apologize for interrupting someone else’s pleasant day.

I’ll be honest here. I try to avoid interruptions as much as possible. I drive past car accidents all the time. I often ignore homeless people on the street, either because I don’t have money—or, most likely—because I don’t “have time.” I do not ever answer my phone if I don’t know the number (sometimes I don’t answer even if I do know the number because if it’s important I assume they’ll leave a message and I can call back later). At the heart of it, this is selfishness. I value my time and energy, and I want to remain in control of how I spend those things. 

But Jesus was never annoyed by interruptions; he welcomed them with open arms. He stopped every single time. Jesus was always on the go heading to a new city, but no matter where he was going, the most pressing mission always became the one right in front of his face. Every interruption was a gift; an opportunity to love someone, to offer hope, to provide a miracle on the way to dinner.

There are 24 hours in a day. Think of everything we might be missing by making ourselves unavailable.

It’s never a good time.
Let’s call anyway.  

When the world is ugly

I started coloring the week after Trump got elected.

I’m fairly certain adult coloring was trendy before that, but make no mistake: the 2016 election was the thing that drove me into a Target store, stress eating popcorn, grabbing coloring books and markers off the shelf as if my life—or at least my mental health—depended on it. Experts proclaim adult coloring to be “therapeutic” and a successful way to reduce anxiety. I know this because once upon a time, I pitched four book ideas to an agent, and one of them was a coloring book for moms. I did my research; I read the articles. Plus, I don’t know about you, but I can only color so many Paw Patrol sheets before my mind goes completely numb.

But I digress.

Adult coloring seemed a hell of a lot cheaper than booking appointments with an actual therapist to rant about politics, which is why, on the same day I picked up a coloring book at Target, I instituted 5pm as the official “Art Hour” in our house.

Every day went like this: Carson woke up from his nap, hair all awry, and I carried him to meet his brother on the couch where they sat side by side eating goldfish crackers out of matching snack cups while watching one episode of the PBS show du jour. If I remember correctly, last fall Curious George was all the rage. (They’ve since moved on to Cat In The Hat.)

I covered the coffee table in wrapping paper while the show played, careful to only place washable markers within arm’s reach. I tossed Paw patrol coloring books, Elmo sticker books, and a handful of plain white paper on the table.

As soon as the show ended, I turned the TV off and turned Pandora on, rotating every other day between Delta Rae and Trevor Hall stations. I closed my computer, the news, all social media apps, and tried really hard not to think about everything I’d read that day for thirty whole minutes. Sixty if I could keep the kids interested that long.

Everett colored, Carson scribbled, and I placed all of my anxiety into a collection of fine-tip markers, moving them up and down and all around shading in flowers and butterflies.

***

A couple months ago, I learned that my friend’s daughter, Riley, was having a hard time in fourth grade. Her family had just moved to a new town, and some of the girls at the new school were picking on her.

I felt oddly protective of Riley, even though she’s not my kid. I’ve never even met her. But her mom has been writing with me for almost three years now and when her mom feels the heartache of motherhood, I feel it too.

I asked Riley’s mom if it would be okay if I sent a letter and care package to Riley in the mail. She said yes, and I got to work. As I sat down to write a letter to Riley, my mind transported back to a scene from my own 4th grade. It was a field trip day, and we were on a bus, although I cannot remember where we were going. I do, however, remember a girl making fun of my outfit. I went to a private Christian school with uniforms, so any time we had a “free dress day” it was a pretty big deal. My outfit had been carefully chosen. I can’t be certain, but I am 90% positive I was wearing a vest of some kind.

My friend, who was sitting next to me on the bus, looked at the girl who was teasing me and said, “Hey, cut it out. What would Jesus do?”

(Cue all the jokes about Christian school cliches, I know.)

(Wait for it.)

The girl looked me up and down, sneered, and said: “What would Jesus do? More like what would Jesus WEAR?”

(I cannot even type that without laughing.)

Obviously today, at 31 years old, this story is hilarious to me. But at nine? I was devastated. I told Riley all about my experience and reassured her that 4th grade is hard and sometimes girls aren’t nice. I’m usually not one to dole out advice, but considering the 20+ year age gap between us, I felt slightly obligated to shed some light on the situation. After all, I’ve learned a thing or two about coping skills since I was her age. With my pen to paper, I started drafting a list of what Riley could do to feel better the next time someone picks on her.  

Riley’s Feel Better Plan

1) Eat some candy. Not too much, but a little bit of sugar can work wonders.

2) Color a picture. When the world is ugly, sometimes the best thing you can do is make something beautiful in response.

3) Write your feelings. This could be a story, a few words, or just a bunch of sad faces. There’s no right or wrong way to write your feelings. Your mom is really good at this; she can help.

4) Put on Dr. Pepper chapstick. This is actually the most important step. I can’t explain it, but when I was in 4th grade, this was my superpower. As soon as I put it on, I felt 100x better. Keep this in your backpack at all times in case of emergency!

I folded the three-page letter and tucked it into a padded envelope with a coloring book, journal, pack of jelly beans, and tube of Dr. Pepper chapstick (which was surprisingly hard to find). I said a little prayer for Riley and dropped the package at the post office.

***

I am sitting in my tiny living room surrounded by women with their hands on me. It is 2012 and I am weeks away from meeting my first baby. There’s a hand on my thigh, my ankle, my pregnant belly, a few on my back. I have just taken my turn sharing my testimony and they are praying over me to close the night. Camille leads the charge, her hand firm on my shoulder.

With power in her voice, she lays out a specific prediction.

It feels like an earthquake in my bones.

A few weeks later we exchange e-mails, and this is what she says:

I felt tingles when I prayed that prayer over you. I felt so strongly that it was the Holy Spirit; it wasn’t anything I planned on saying. I’ve been thinking of you a lot and your transition to motherhood. I feel like motherhood is going to be a broad calling for you, not just with your precious baby, but there are going to be many girls that will look to you as their mother. There will be girls that will feel drawn to you for mentoring, advice, encouragement, and spiritual leadership. You are a magnet and God is not going to pass on giving you opportunities.

I did not have the slightest clue what Camille’s prayer would mean for my life, but I let her e-mail live in my inbox for five years just in case.

***

Every time I log on to Twitter, there is a new thing to be angry about. A fresh outrage. 100 recent injustices in the news. Corruption. Terror. It’s everywhere. All of the time. And no amount of adult coloring is going to erase it.

The hardest part of having a book come out in this type of political climate is that you start to feel really, really stupid. You start to ask yourself questions like, do these words even matter? To anyone? There are bombs going off in Syria and terrorist attacks in London and do not even get me started on the horrifying joke that is our current administration.

Every day I lead a team of women who are committed to encouraging mothers through the art of storytelling. I used to think it mattered. A lot. I wouldn’t have worked this hard, for this long, for this little money, if I didn’t think the work was worthwhile. But lately I find myself asking, is this necessary? Does anyone even need this?

Everywhere I turn, the world is ugly. And the louder the news gets, the quieter my voice becomes. The world is on fire and here I am typing away, wasting my damn time.

***

I want to tell you something about God. Something you probably won’t believe if you don’t believe in God, but something I feel pressed to tell you nonetheless.

You see, God has a solid track record of affirming my work right when I’m at the peak of despair. It’s usually when the enemy is speaking directly to my soul, leading me to believe that I’m a horrible writer, a horrible leader, and a horrible person. Your work doesn’t matter, he hisses late at night. You are nothing, this work means nothing, you should just quit now. You’re a joke, an imposter. You should find better things to do with your time. Everything you've ever done is meaningless. I hear him at 3am while I toss and turn under the sheets. I pray him away, but the words burn in my head till I wake up.

This silent battle continues for weeks in the middle of spring. The devil in my ear, magnifying my insecurities and squelching my confidence. He's determined to cast doubt in my mind and plant fear in my heart and make me question everything I have ever believed.

And then on a Friday morning in May, like a ray of light, a short story appears in my Instagram from a woman named Callie.

She has left me 12 long, private messages. I begin reading, and learn that Callie had spent the day at the hospital being thoroughly checked for breast cancer. She left her preschooler and newborn at home with her husband, crying as she left. On the way out the door, she grabbed her copy of The Magic of Motherhood and shoved it in her purse. 

She tells me how she felt panicked in the car, and turned on the Coffee + Crumbs podcast to keep her company. She tells me how she read the first three chapters of our book in the waiting room, blissfully distracted.

She writes:

As I trailed behind the doctor into a new room, it really hit me. I picked that book up today so I wouldn’t be alone. Today I needed a friend, a support crew. Something to feel connected to before I received what could be life-changing news.

As I sprinted out the door earlier, it was your written friendship I grasped. I hadn’t even realized how much I didn’t want to be alone. But there I was, supported, in a pale pink waiting room, by stories and writers I’ve never even met.

Callie was quick to tell me she was fine and healthy (praise God!), but I had tears streaming down my face all the same. Here I am, a mom of two young kids in California, questioning the very work the Lord has put in front of my face. There she is, a mom of two young kids in Australia, clutching the same work in her hands on a day when she felt alone and scared.

There God is, in everything, all of the time, connecting the dots and weaving the story together, making sure His voice is always louder than the one I hear hissing in the middle of the night.

***

“The E-mail” lands in my inbox on a Wednesday morning. Aggressive. Rude. Unnecessary and not constructive in the slightest. I’ve been writing on the Internet since 2009 and you’d think this stuff wouldn’t phase me anymore, but it does.

I am human, after all.

She is angry that we use the word “motherhood” on our site when we have not launched grown children into the world. She is offended that we have the nerve to write about our experiences when our children are so young and our scope is so narrow.

But really, at the heart of it, her message is loud and clear: your work is meaningless.

If God can deliver messages through people on earth, I suppose it should be expected that the enemy would do the same.

A careful response is crafted with help from my team—peaceful, but firm. I click send and the e-mail immediately bounces back.

Of course she used a fake e-mail address.

(They always do.)

“Coward!” I shout as I slam my laptop shut.

Angry at the amount of energy I have just wasted, I stand up and look around. I need to fix the morning, to redeem the day. This situation calls for something more than a coloring page, but I’m pretty sure if I start writing my feelings, a high volume of the f word is going to come out. I grab my own Dr. Pepper chapstick and roll it back and forth in my hand for a minute before applying it.

(You didn’t think I only bought some for Riley, did you?)

I know what I need to do.

I need to make something beautiful.

My eye catches a plastic Target bag sitting near the front door. It contains small gifts that should have been sent weeks ago. I go back to Instagram and re-read a string of messages from another stranger named Brittany, fresh tears forming in my eyes. Brittany and her sister had been pregnant together, due the same month and year. Two days after Brittany delivered a baby boy, her sister delivered a stillborn daughter. I try to imagine this; my close friend and I had our second babies just a few weeks apart. What would we have done if only one baby had survived? The grief is unthinkable.

I grab some tissue paper from the hall closet, pivoting into my office to retrieve one of the few remaining signed copies of The Magic of Motherhood from my bookshelf. I sit down at the dining room table to sign a card before tucking a journal, two candles, two face masks, and the book into another padded envelope.

I say a little prayer for both sisters, and drop the package at the post office.

***

I am sitting at a candlelit dinner with 20 women, taking turns passing a giant amethyst rock clockwise around the table. The rules are simple: whoever holds the rock shares something they’re scared to say out loud. No skips.

(I severely underestimated how emotional this conversation would be.)

The stories are more heartbreaking than I imagined—tales of miscarriages and near-death experiences, alcoholism and eating disorders, broken marriages and postpartum depression. Five minutes in, I stop fighting the urge to cry. It is pointless. I cry on and off for the duration of the dinner, secretly wondering if there are traces of mascara smeared all over my face.

It’s Chrissie’s turn now—a woman I have known for exactly one hour. Her story is perhaps the simplest of all: she is lonely. With three young children under her care, she often feels too anxious or overwhelmed to attend playdates and mom groups. She’s home a lot. She tells us how someone tagged her in the event post on Instagram, and, in preparing to attend, she hopped on Amazon and purchased our book.

Her eyes meet mine, and she begins to tell me how our book has had a profound impact on her life over the past few weeks. She tells me how, for the first time since becoming a mom, she felt understood. Encouraged. Not alone. She is crying now, and I’m crying watching her cry, and she says, “I feel like the women who wrote these stories are my friends.”

I am speechless.

Her words echo in my mind as I fall asleep, keeping the hissing at bay.

I know he'll be back soon, but tonight, I rest.  

***

Last I checked, the world is still ugly. I think it will be until Jesus comes back. My coloring pages aren’t really helping anyone, but my other art is. I believe that. I have to believe that. I believe it because no matter how far back I look in the rearview mirror of my life, there God is. Over and over again—laying out the plan, opening the map, and telling me which way to go. I never see the whole picture, but I always see enough to take a leap of faith (even when I'm terrified). 

I wish courage came before obedience, don't you? 

Until then, let's keep going, Lord.

Only by Your grace, may I look around this ugly world and keep making beautiful things.

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Ashlee Gadd

Ashlee Gadd is a wife, mother, writer and photographer from Sacramento, California. When she’s not dancing in the kitchen with her two boys, Ashlee loves curling up with a good book, lounging in the sunshine, and making friends on the Internet. She loves writing about everything from motherhood and marriage to friendship and faith.

on fear, criticism, scraps, and feasts.

ashleefam62 I have recently become obsessed with reading Amazon book reviews.

It’s a normal thing I do now, like checking my bank account or reading The Skimm. At least once or twice a week, I sit in bed with my laptop, perusing Amazon for 10, 20, sometimes 30 minutes reading reviews of books—mostly books I’ve read, but occasionally books I haven’t.

In my own twisted mind, I have adopted this process as a way of preparing myself for what’s to come. After all, next April people will be leaving reviews on our book. Right there on the Internet, for all the world to see.

I have never been so terrified.

My entire career (as I know it now) was founded on the Internet. I started writing, for free, on the Internet. I taught myself how to be a photographer on the Internet. I launched a website—which eventually turned into a podcast, a shop, a writing course, a book deal—thanks to the great people of the Internet.

I have honed a craft on the Internet, created my own dream job on the Internet, and made a ton of real, genuine friends on the Internet. Suffice it to say, I love the Internet.

And yet.

The Internet still scares the crap out of me.

---

A woman I know recently published a book on motherhood. On the very day it was released, a small herd of people tore her to shreds. They left a noticeable streak of 1-star reviews, questioning a number of things: her motives, her theology, how many times she mentioned Jesus in the book (not enough, apparently). They called her names, questioned her faith, and described her book as "a waste of time" and "a huge disappointment."

The most alarming part was not the negative reviews themselves, but rather the number of people voting the reviews as “helpful” – which caused all of the 1-star reviews to float to the top of the page like a dark cloud.

I think of how hard this woman worked on that book, how many early mornings and late nights she spent writing and re-writing and editing and praying over those words. I think of all the people who were involved with the manuscript: editors and agents, friends and family. All to have it discredited, loudly, in the first 24 hours that people are allowed to comment publicly online.

I read the book myself. It was not the best book I have ever read, nor was it the worst. I found nothing in those pages worthy of the harsh criticism she received.

And that was the most disturbing part about it.

---

We do a reader survey for Coffee + Crumbs every year. The responses pour in by the hundreds, always around the same ratio: 94% positive, 6% negative.

The most interesting thing about that 6% is that they’re all upset about something different.

One says, “Your posts are too depressing.” Another says, “I feel like you wrap up every essay with a neat little bow; that’s not real life.” One says, “I wish you guys would lighten up a bit.” Another says, “You’ve become too precious.” One says, “You talk about God too much.” Another says, “You don’t talk about God enough.”

I take all the feedback with a grain of salt, and bring it to the team. (Worth mentioning: this is the same team who currently writes for no pay.)

My friend Anna reminds me of this truth as we analyze the feedback as a group:

“We cannot be all things to all people, but we can be a lot of things to a lot of people.”

---

Anne Lamott once wrote, “I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do---the actual act of writing---turns out to be the best part.”

---

Last Wednesday Everett came home from preschool and pulled artwork out of his backpack with an excited grin, his face beaming like the sun.

“Look what I made today, momma!”

He held up a yellow piece of paper with scribbles and stamps on it.

“I made it for you!” he said proudly.

I smiled at him, kneeling down to take the paper from his hands. Before I even responded, he darted out of the room to go find his Elmo.

---

Sometimes I find myself wishing that Coffee + Crumbs would stay small. There seems to be safety in smallness, less chances for harsh criticism and online hate. But in the very next breath I am working on a list of endorsers, adding ideas to the book marketing plan.

How does that work? How can I simultaneously want to grow bigger and stay small? How can I want our writing to reach more people while also wanting to stay in this safe cocoon we have managed to reside in for two whole years?

I suppose it is no different than motherhood.

I look at Carson, the Velcro baby of all Velcro babies. He is only two. There are probably loads of hilarious things that will someday come out of his mouth, brilliant ideas he will have, inspiring art he will create. And yet if I could keep him this small, waddling around the house in a diaper, I probably would. I would rock him in the grey rocking chair every night by the twinkle of the fish nightlight, burying my face in his neck and smelling his baby skin forever and ever.

He’s sweet and safe here, in the nest.

I know I can’t keep him here forever. At some point he will fly away to do good things, to make mistakes, to love and be loved, to leave a unique footprint on the earth. To keep him in the nest forever would stunt him, stifle him, trap him, and hinder him from reaching his full potential.

It’s still tempting, though.

We’re so cozy here.

---

Our pastor recently preached a sermon on the time Jesus fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. One of the things I really love about our pastor is his ability to take a story I’ve heard a dozen times and put a fresh spin on it.

So he’s telling the story I already know: Jesus goes out on a boat to be alone, but the crowds follow him. The disciples tell Jesus that it's getting late, and that He should send the people away. Instead, Jesus tells the disciples to give them something to eat.

The disciples look down at what they have, confused. They tell Jesus they only have five loaves of bread and two fish. It's not enough.

And then—this is the key, the fresh spin—Jesus says this: “Bring them here to me.”

You know how the story ends. He looks up to Heaven, breaks the bread, and feeds 5,000 men (plus women and children). There is enough leftover to fill twelve baskets.

---

How many times have I looked down at my work, my resources, my bank account, my art, my gifts and thought, this isn’t enough?

This isn’t good enough, God. This won’t work, God.

Perhaps I have been missing a piece of the puzzle all along.

It’s not my job to show up with a feast. It’s certainly not my job to work miracles. No, it’s my job to show up with the scraps, with my not-good-enough work and my not-good-enough talents and bring them to Him. It’s my job to put those scraps in greater hands and trust and believe with my whole heart that He is the only one capable of turning it into a feast.

---

This is the truth: I am damn proud of this book. I am proud of every essay in there, of every writer who contributed, of every story we reached deep into our hearts to find.

This is also the truth: I am terrified of what people will say about it. I am terrified of people ripping us apart, terrified that in the daylight I’ll shrug it off and say I’m fine but at 3am a single tear will roll down my cheek while I dissect the criticism in my head.

I don’t know how to keep courage. I don’t know how to stay brave when there might be people waiting in the wings to tear us down. I don’t know how to be stronger. I don’t know how to fight this, how to overcome my overwhelming insecurity. Sometimes I wonder if I should simply block Amazon from my browser so I won’t be tempted to check the reviews 400 times.

I’ll tell you what I’m praying for, though.

I’m praying that God will take our scraps and turn them into something beautiful. I'm praying that He alone will receive the glory if and when a feast arrives. I’m praying that the complaints—and the praise, to be honest—will not affect the way we see our own work. I’m praying that next April we will pull this artwork out of our backpacks, faces beaming like the sun, and hand it to the world with a simple, “We made this for you!”

Because we did. We made this for you.

Onward and upward.

the fleece.

ashlee

Photo by Wendy Laurel

One day last October, an unexpected e-mail popped up in my inbox. It said, “I’ve been watching Coffee + Crumbs for a while now; I was just curious if you’ve ever considered a book?”

This was before I had an agent coaching me on how to handle conversations with publishers, back when I was replying to e-mails all willy nilly, the way I always reply to e-mails—quickly and concisely and often with emojis.

Do you know what I told that publisher?

“I don't think Coffee + Crumbs is ready for a book of essays.”

Yep. I said that. I really typed those words.

I don’t know if that was just the fear talking, or doubt, or insecurity, or some bitter twisted cocktail of all of the above, but at the time, that was my truth. I practically scoffed at the idea, holding up a shield of resistance in front of my face.

Nope. It’s too soon. It’s too much. We aren’t ready for that. I am not ready for that.

Four weeks later, a new e-mail from a different publisher popped up in my inbox. It said, “We really love what you’ve made with Coffee + Crumbs, and we’d like to chat with you about writing a book.”

I wish I could say this is where all of the fear and insecurity fell away, and that receiving two e-mails from two different publishers in four weeks’ time was enough of an ego boost to convince me this book might be a good idea, but that’s not exactly how it went down. Doubt remained in full force, tugging at me, pulling on me, begging me to get down on the floor in the fetal position and hide behind my shield.

So I prayed about it. I told God I was scared. I prayed some more.

And then, He took the shield right out of my hands and told me to stand up.

***

There is a story in the bible about a man named Gideon who is probably better known for defeating an army of 135,000 Midianites with 300 men, and less known for the way he tested God.

While I love a good victory in the name of Yahweh, I have to admit—I am much more intrigued by the way Gideon worked up the courage to ask God for a sign (not once, twice).

When God told Gideon to gather the Israelite troops to defeat the Midianites, Gideon wanted to be sure it was really God’s voice he was hearing. So before complying with God’s wishes, he laid out a simple test. He put a scrap of fleece on the ground overnight and asked God to make the fleece wet with dew while keeping the surrounding ground dry.

And God made it so.

The fleece was so wet that when Gideon wrung it out the next morning, water filled an entire bowl. You’d probably assume that Gideon’s faith would be restored after this sign, but that’s not exactly how it went down. Gideon, bless his heart, needed just one more sign. He knew it was a lot to ask, which is why he prefaced his request by asking God not to be angry with him. This time around, he got super creative and asked for the opposite sign: that the fleece would be dry while the ground stayed wet.

Again, God made it so.

Finally Gideon believed, and went on to follow God’s instructions to defeat the Midianites.

Later in Hebrews 11, Gideon is referenced as a man of great faith.

***

Girl gets book deal. Shit hits the fan. Girl freaks out.

This is my very own Gideon tale.

***

When everything first happened: the e-mails from publishers, the agent, the book deal, one of the first emotions I felt (and was not expecting to feel) was guilt.

Publishers don’t just e-mail people like me out of the blue. There are writers on my very team slaving over this grueling process, day in and day out, pouring their hearts and souls into their manuscripts hoping that someday, someone will give them a chance.

My inner critic faithfully reminded me: You do not deserve this. You did not earn this.

It felt like I had cheated. Like I had walked up to the roller coaster everyone was dying to get on and skipped ahead to the front of the line. At night, I laid awake at 2am wondering if some of the other writers secretly resented me.

These nine women are like sisters to me; we are a family and we got to this point together. But things got complicated pretty quickly. There were lots and lots of e-mails and questions—valid questions—questions I myself might be asking if I was sitting on the other side of the table.

But I wasn’t really sitting on either side of the table; I was sitting right on top of it, smack dab in the center, as the official collector and distributor of all information.

I became the middlewoman between the agent/publisher and the writers. For two straight weeks, I did nothing but send e-mails. I became a machine, a human computer, information coming in and information going out. I took questions and forwarded them to the right people. I translated answers as soon as I got them. My brain became a vessel of constant input/output, to the point where I started getting nightly headaches.

With emotions and stress levels running at an all-time high, a few of those conversations left me feeling defensive and confused. Am I disappointing everyone? Is this book going to ruin us? What have I gotten myself into? Next thing I knew, I was driving to Chick-fil-A with tears streaming down my face to drown my sorrows in a carton of waffle fries.

I felt so fragile, so tired. Doesn’t everyone see how hard I’m working?

I cried a lot that night, and had to wonder: was this book really from God?

***

Things people don’t tell you about book publishing:

  1. You will spend more time sending e-mails than anything else.
  2. You don’t have as much say as you think you will.
  3. The whole process might wreak havoc on your marriage.

(Talk to me next April about all of the wonderful parts—I know they’re coming.)

***

In the two months leading up to the manuscript being turned in, I became a hermit. I was glued to my laptop at every opportunity dealing with e-mails about titles and cover images and contracts. I shut the bedroom door to write in peace and left town a few times to hole up in a hotel room to finish proposals and essays. I printed almost 300 pages at Kinkos and proofread them carefully in the backyard with a red pen in one hand and an iced coffee in the other.

I cannot remember exactly when I developed chronic insomnia, but somewhere along this journey, I started buying Zzzquil in bulk.

If I’m being real, gut-wrenchingly honest here, my marriage saw some of our Darkest Nights leading up to the manuscript being turned in. We fought a ton. We said things we couldn’t take back. We never had enough help with the kids. My husband felt neglected (he was), I felt like I wasn’t receiving enough grace (I wasn’t), and neither of those feelings were being communicated well. Instead, I expected him to read my mind and he expected me to read his, and after nine years of marriage, you’d think we’d both know by now that we are terrible mind readers.

It wasn’t the book’s fault, but the book was easy to blame. It was easy to point to. The printed manuscript sat right there on the bedroom dresser—all 64,488 words of it.

The day the manuscript was turned in, we weren’t even speaking to each other.

I celebrated in silence, threw up an obligatory Instagram, took my kids out for ice cream alone, and felt really, truly, sad. And it was that night, sitting isolated in my bedroom, feeling more empty and confused than ever, that I wondered for the second time: was this book really from God?

***

After the night of the waffle fries, I had a good heart-to-heart with the C+C writers. In some ways, I’m grateful that things got temporarily complicated because it opened the door for some bigger conversations about the future, about expectations, about roles and teamwork and trust. I realized how much my own insecurity played a part in my defensiveness, which is not the kind of leader I want to be.

Brett and I kissed and made up. (And also went to therapy.) A few weeks later, on the two year anniversary of Coffee + Crumbs, he brought home flowers and a box of coffee crumb cake mix—a perfect peace offering.

Last weekend we ran away to Calistoga to celebrate our nine-year wedding anniversary.

I left my laptop at home.

***

My publisher tells me this is normal, that every author feels this way, that I am in the thick of it, that the sun will come out soon. I believe those words. And the only reason I am writing all of this down is because next April, I want to be able to look back on the journey as a whole and appreciate the love and work and sweat and tears that have been poured into this book.

And I want you to know this part of the story, too.

So that when you see the glamorous side later: the book launch party and shiny new books propped up on shelves in the bookstore, you can appreciate the full journey—in all of its messy and beautiful glory—and feel like you were along for the ride.

Nothing good ever comes easy; we know this. Motherhood. Marriage. Running a marathon. Climbing a mountain. Writing a book. These things require perseverance, patience, endurance, loyalty, love, dedication, and heaps and heaps of grace. These things offer us the chance to grow, to adapt, to learn, to sacrifice, to push ourselves to the limits, and to lean on God like never before.

As far as work goes, this book is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. I’m not sure what’s more exciting at this point: the mental image of this book sitting on shelves in actual bookstores, or all the ways I will be refined in the process.

***

“Writing is my calling.” “Music is my calling.” “Missions are my calling.”

I’ve heard lots of people—Christians especially—talk about calling.

God is calling me here; God is calling me there.

I’ve said that before. I’ve had days where I suddenly felt my heart stir for something, for someone, for someplace, and the feeling seemingly came out of the sky.

Do things like that come out of the sky? Or do things like that come from God?

I suppose it depends on whether or not you believe in God.

I’m definitely not an expert in callings (in yours, or mine). But I do know this: when I needed the fleece to be wet, it was wet, and when I needed the fleece to be dry, it was dry.

***

On November 13, 2013, the idea for Coffee + Crumbs was planted in my heart.

Six weeks later, in a city 45 minutes from where I live, a total stranger named N’tima Preusser wrote a blog post called Babies Ruin Bodies.

On February 5, 2014, Babies Ruin Bodies ran on the Huffington Post, and one day in March it popped up on my Facebook feed. I subscribed to N’tima’s blog that night.

On June 15, 2014, I e-mailed N’tima out of the blue, introduced myself for the very first time, and, like a total crazy person, asked her to write for a brand new website that hadn’t even launched yet. Seven days later, she said yes.

Five weeks after that, her first essay went up: When Love Feels Heavy.

That post was viewed over a million times that month.

Coffee + Crumbs was only four weeks old.

***

On August 8, 2014, a stranger named April sent me an essay called Bad Math that made me cry actual tears all over the dress I was wearing.

She sent me another essay in September called Brave Brave Brave and I cried (again) reading it at the coffee shop.

I wrote her back and casually said, “Let’s add you to the writer team.”

She replied, “I am going to go scream in the bathroom, BRB.”

Our e-mails turned into texts and our texts turned into 15-minute voicemails and at some point, she confessed that she had been reading my personal blog since 2010. I laughed hysterically. We wrote together and maintained a long-distance friendship for nineteen months before meeting in real life for the first time in Palm Springs for my 30th birthday.

She walked through the door carrying a giant cake with tiny cactuses on it.

I knew we’d be friends forever.

***

I have hundreds of little miracles in my pocket, just waiting to be written down.

I have more stories involving C+C writers, and more perfectly-timed e-mails I could tell you about. But generally speaking, you should know that every time I have ever wanted to quit writing, an e-mail has popped up in my inbox from a total stranger the same week. (And I have wanted to quit writing more than once; there are lots of e-mails.) They all say some rendition of the same thing: Keep writing.

***

I am no longer wondering whether or not this book is from God.

Because now when things get hard, I just remember the fleece.

***

“You’ve so earned this!” “If anyone deserves this, it’s you!” “All of your hard work is finally paying off!”

Well. Maybe.

The bigger truth? The more exciting truth? The truer truth?

Look at the fleece.

***

I don’t know what your calling is. I don’t know if you’ll ever get a book deal or an agent or that dream job or that dream spouse. I don’t know if you’ll get pregnant or adopt or start that business or move to that city.

But I do know that God is working, all of the time, in every moment, all around you. He is in every breath you take, every decision, every step, every move, every interaction, every…..thing.

God is in everything.

And if you don’t believe me, that’s okay.

Because all I have to do is check your fleece.

be brave.

"I don’t want my kids safe and comfortable. I want them BRAVE. I don’t want to teach them to see danger under every rock, avoiding anything hard or not guaranteed or risky. They are going to encounter a very broken world soon, and if they aren’t prepared to wade into difficult territory and contend for the kingdom against obstacles and tragedies and hardships, they are going to be terrible disciples.  I don’t want to be the reason my kids choose safety over courage. I hope I never hear them say, “Mom will freak out,” or “My parents will never agree to this.” May my fear not bind their purpose here. Scared moms raise scared kids. Brave moms raise brave kids. Real disciples raise real disciples." -- Jen Hatmaker

***

Dear Everett,

Sometimes in life, God will talk to you. He does this in different ways at different times, and while I can't really explain in words what it feels or sounds like, you will know when it happens. Your heart will stir a little, and then a lot. You'll feel a nudge to do something. It might be something small or something big, but it will for sure be something.

He might tell you to stand up for someone, or to defend a kid on the playground. He might tell you to invite someone to eat lunch with you, or to buy groceries for a homeless man on the street. He might tell you to pray for a friend out of the blue, or to make a Big Move with your life, to go somewhere far away and help someone in need.

You might not hear words, but you'll know when He is talking. The Holy Spirit can be quiet sometimes, and loud other times. You'll feel it in the depths of your soul, in the innermost workings of your heart. You will feel conviction and confidence and peace in these things, these directions.

And I want you to know Ev, that when you hear God talking to you like that, it's best to listen. You don't need to be afraid, even if what He is calling you to do sounds scary.

You are not my child, Everett. You are God's child. I am just your keeper on earth for a time. He is the one watching over you every second of every day, a task I certainly cannot fulfill. I'm only human, but our God is a big God.

I want you to be a lot of things, Ev. I want you to grow up to be faithful and kind and generous and honest and compassionate. And perhaps even more than those things, I want you to be brave, Ev. I want you to be strong in your faith. I want you to take risks, chase your dreams, and most importantly, follow God's guidance when He speaks to you.

Even when these things seem impossible and hard and scary and difficult, I want you to hold on to your faith and be brave.

Don't let anyone tell you that it cannot be done. Anything you do in the name of Jesus for the glory of God can be done.

You are my son, Ev, but first and foremost, you are God's son. Nothing will ever change that. Listen to Him with open ears and an open heart; I know He has big things in store for you, just like He has big things in store for me.

As Jen Hatmaker says, brave moms raise brave kids. I'm working on my part, and someday, when you're a little bigger, I know you'll work on yours too.

Let's be brave together.

If God is for us, who can be against us? - Romans 8:31

Love, Momma

when you miss the sunrise.

sunrise2 This morning Everett and I were lying in bed, him babbling and me half-sleeping. My stomach growled and E giggled as I begrudgingly swung my legs off the bed. I noticed there was an orange tint to the room, and it took me a moment to realize there were orange and pink rays streaming through the cracks in the window blinds.

"Oooooh, Ev! There's a pretty sunrise this morning! Let's go look."

I picked him up and he squealed with delight as we made our way to the window. I opened the blinds and saw the familiar view that I've come to know and love from our bedroom in the morning. Shades of orange, pink, yellow and grey filled the sky.

As I stood there quietly soaking in the sunrise, the morning, the beauty of it all, Everett was practically jumping out of my arms to grab the blinds. He wanted to touch them, hit them, or eat them (I wasn't sure which).

My poor baby. He was missing it! As we stood there facing the magnificent sky, Everett couldn't see the sunrise because he was too focused on the window blinds in front of him.

Aha.

Every day, God is teaching me more and more about what it means to be a parent.

Missing the sunrise is like missing the blessing of marriage because you're too wrapped up in your wedding. It's like missing the first time your baby smiles at you because you're too wrapped up in folding laundry. It's like missing the gift of grace because you're too wrapped up in religion, or like missing out on Heaven because you're too consumed with this life.

Missing the sunrise is like missing the whole point.

And yet...

That sun rises every morning. Certain, true, consistent. Another chance to see it, and another chance to get it right.

As a parent, I have plenty of hopes and dreams for Everett, but above all is my hope that he won't miss the sunrise.

Have you ever been so distracted by a window blind that you missed a sunrise? Are you lost on this metaphor? That's okay, I think I am too.

unfrozen.

The last time the Holy Spirit nudged me in Target, I froze. But not tonight. Tonight, I listened...

It was supposed to be a quick trip, in and out to grab two items: bubble wrap and a cardboard box. I promised Brett I would pick up frozen yogurt on my way home. Going to Target by myself is a special treat, and one that typically entails trying on colored skinny jeans and perusing the clearance shoe aisle. But not tonight. Tonight I was good. I walked straight to the shipping supply aisle, and straight out the door.

That's when I saw them.

A woman, holding a cardboard sign, with a little girl in a stroller next to her.

Hungry God Bless

Without hesitation, I walked right up to her and asked if I could buy her something to eat. Her eyes widened as she eagerly nodded. We walked into Target together with Miranda, her four-year-old daughter. I grabbed a basket, and shifted my roll of bubble wrap and cardboard box under one arm.

"How much....I get?" she asked. She spoke very little English.

"You can fill up this whole basket and I'll pay for it."

"God bless you. Thank you."

I looked down at Miranda and noticed that her clothes were dirty. It didn't seem to bother her. She held a toy in her hand and smiled at me more than once.

"Do you have more children?" I asked the woman.

"Yes. Boy. He is seven."

I told her about Everett and she seemed shocked that I had a baby of my own at home. We walked to the meat and produce section of Target, where she began to carefully study the selections in front of her. She slowly reached for a whole chicken, looking back at me.

"It's okay?"

"Yes, it's okay. Just put it in the basket."

She reached for some pork, looked at the price, and put it back.

"Do you want that?" I asked her.

"It's too much. It's ten dollars!"

"It's okay," I reassured her, "I will pay for everything you can fit into this basket."

She looked at me, looked at the pork, looked at me again, and finally put it in the basket. We kept walking as she threw things into the basket I was carrying. More chicken. Tomatoes. Eggs. Yogurt. Sliced turkey. Milk. Strawberries. Peppers. A couple of lunchables for Miranda.

"I need oil and bread....that's all," she said.

The basket was getting too heavy for me to carry with one arm, as I awkwardly tried to readjust my bubble wrap and cardboard box.

"I take it," she said. "You push Miranda."

So I did. I pushed Miranda, while she looked back at me and said something in a language I didn't understand. Her eyes were beautiful, dark mocha brown, with long curly eyelashes. She had two little clips in her hair.

We picked up oil and bread, both generic, the cheapest of options, the stuff I never buy, and headed toward the cashiers.

"Oh!" she exclaimed. "I need laundry soap!"

"Okay, let's get some."

I know Target like the back of my hand, including where the laundry detergent is located. I pushed Miranda down the laundry aisle and grabbed a big jug of Tide.

"Oh, no no. Please. Too big. Too much."

"It's okay. They're all this big. It will last you a long time. This is the kind that I use, I know it's good."

"No, no. It's too much."

"Just put it in the basket. It's okay."

She thanked me the whole way to the register. I asked if she had a place to live and she said yes. She told me that both her and her husband lost their jobs this year. Now she cleaned houses and her husband cleaned motels but they did not have enough money to buy food. My heart ached for her, but it ached more for Miranda.

I paid for the food and laundry detergent. The total came to $49.99. She put the bags on the handles of the umbrella stroller and said thank you again, telling me it was too much and that $50 was a lot of money. I told her that it was okay and that it wasn't too much.

We walked out of Target together.

"God bless you," she said to me.

"God bless YOU," I said back to her. My eyes were stinging with tears.

Then she went right, and I went left.

I picked up the frozen yogurt I had promised Brett, and prayed for her the whole way home.

I didn't do much. I probably could have done more. I probably should have done more. I didn't talk to her about Jesus or give her money or offer her anything more than a few days worth of food and a few months worth of clean laundry.

But, I did something. And last time, I did nothing. Last time I froze.

I still think about that old lady in the frozen food aisle. Just like I know I'll always remember the woman from tonight. The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways, and it appears that in my life, He mostly speaks to me at Target. Who am I to question?

bright yellow wings.

She was impossible to miss with her cheerful yellow wings, outlined in black as if God himself had carefully colored inside the lines. I juggled Everett in one arm, his sweaty head pressed up against my cheek while I yanked my iPhone out of the diaper bag pocket to take a picture. After all, it's not every day that you find a beautiful butterfly perched on your garage floor. The symbolism alone stopped me in my tracks.

I love finding beauty in the unbeautiful. It reminds me that in all things, there is hope. It reminds me that there is grace and forgiveness waiting for me, for you, despite all of the ugly things we've done. He's looking right past the dirt, the stains, the giant cracks and pieces of trash waiting to be swept up. Yes, He's looking for the bright yellow wings, a transformation, a stirring of heart.

Because once that happens, the ugly garage floor might as well disappear altogether.

Those bright yellow wings will carry us right on home.